Friday, September 18, 2015

Finding and Working with Critique Partners and Beta Readers

(Publishing News will be next week)

Every writers knows the value of good beta readers and good critique partners. But how do you find them? How do you know whom to ask, and how do you know what advise to listen to, and how do know they're good?

Finding Beta Readers and Critique Partners

You may have to train your own. But if you are trying find good beta readers or partners, here's what to look for.

First of all, don’t ask close friends or family to be the ones giving you advice; that’s an emotional mine field you don’t want to play in. If you make exceptions, make sure, really sure, they’re ready to be that exception—either writers themselves used to giving and getting honest, good feedback, or readers used to giving good feedback. 

Find readers of your genre to be your beta readers. Listen to them. Don’t take all their feedback, but know where your story’s weaknesses are. Find people who read a lot and who are capable of telling you what they like/don’t like in a particular story, and ask/bribe/beg them to give you honest feedback on where they fall out of your story and why. Don’t demand flattery.

Find writers of your genre to be your critique partners. Learn to give a good critique yourself, because you won’t keep a good partner if you can’t give as good as you get. Don’t take all of their advice (unless it's all perfect for your story... but it rarely is), and when two or more betas/critiquers give contradictory advice, use your best judgement. Know your own story. Also, listen to them, and follow as much advice as you can without sacrificing your story—which may still mean you have to rewrite half your story to eliminate/add characters or subplots, because “lots of work” isn’t the same thing as “sacrificing your story.”

There’s a fine line between honesty with tact, honesty without tact, too-harsh because they want to feel like they’re doing a good job and think that’s what honesty is, and downright bullying. And sometimes bad advice is offered in full, honest earnestness. The only way you can know is through experience and having more than one form of advice, and keeping your own common sense first and foremost. And, uh, common sense is formed mostly through experience.

How to learn what good advice looks like

"I advise you stop writing and pet me." --Bad advice
"I advise you stick me on your lap so your butt stays in
the chair and you get lots of writing done." --Good advice
Joining a writing group that gives feedback on short pieces can be good training on what is and isn’t appropriate, if the group has good rules and does a good job of this. The established, open-membership critique group I'm a part of has 3 people share each meeting (and not the same people) and everyone gives them a minute of feedback. Although I rarely read, I learn a lot about my own writing from hearing feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of other works of fiction. It's also taught me how to better differentiate between useful feedback, good but not useful for me feedback, and criticism that's not appropriate (aggressive, not specific enough, good but not tactful, so "tactful" it doesn't actually pinpoint areas for improvement, etc).

If there's not a good group in your area, there are other ways to get an idea of what good criticism looks like.

Honestly, if you can afford it, paying a developmental editor for a first 50 pages (or first 10) can be good training on what good feedback looks like, should you have heard of a recommendation of a good developmental editor who is available and willing.

Some writing contests require judges to give feedback on entries along with scores. This is a crapshoot, because you could get a judge who gives good feedback or bad feedback, but I've found it worth the entry fee most of the times I've done it with various RWA chapters. It can also provide an example of what feedback could and should look like, from a more experienced author. 

There are occasionally also classes offered on how to give a good critique (again, I've seen them through the RWA, in which I'm a member). Consider taking one of those, or looking for classes from another writers' or editors' organization on this topic.

And look at whatever national organization your genre has, and what resources are available to both members and nonmembers. They may have advice, too.

Don't expect established writers to be willing to take on a new critique partner unless they specifically say they're looking for a partner. It's nothing personal--a good critique takes a lot of work, and many writers already have partners to whom they have critiquing commitments. If they want to have time to keep writing their own novel, they'll have no choice but to turn you down. That said, don't be afraid to scoop up an experienced writer who is between critique partners (people move; lives change; partnerships don't always work out). Writers' groups are especially good for this, because they can help connect you to others looking for critique partners.

In any case, once you find willing partners and beta readers, you'll have to work with them--and this may include training those who've never done a beta read or a critique before.

Training and working with betas/critique partners

Working with someone who has never beta'd or critiqued before? Don’t get offended when people tell you your baby is ugly, or that your baby would be prettier if she had a second nose, or didn’t have three arms, or had brown eyes instead of blue, or if she wasn’t related to her ugly father and maybe you should just have had an affair with handsome Pool Boy over there; please splice out husband’s genes for the cutey’s. Because what they’re really saying is “I trust you to not get offended with the very advice you’re asking for, and if you do, I will never give you honest advice ever again.” (Actually, this is true for experienced beta readers and critique partners, too! Especially if they've not worked with you before.)

Sometimes it helps to arm a new reader/partner with a list of specific questions, asking for both positive and negative criticisms, to train them and help them feel more comfortable giving feedback. Respond positively to all the feedback, no matter how off-base it seems. “Thank you” is key. Never argue or verbally/in written word disagree, even if you don’t take the advice.

Don’t take advice from anyone who is just abusive. Because that’s not helpful and there are, indeed, people who go on power trips when “editing.” There are also those who really think they're being helpful, because they've been paired with bullies before and therefore think this is how advice should be given--but the result is 'advice' that isn't truly helpful.

Ignore advice that eliminates your voice.

Never say anything to feedback other than “Thank you.” That’s the number one rule for keeping partners. Don’t offend them by defending yourself, not even if the advice is bad advice.

When the trust has been built and well-established, then you can do more of the bounce-ideas-off feedback, and ask advice on feedback. But I never recommend doing anything until at least 3 days after reading a critique, because no matter how thick your skin, good advice still stings—even though your baby really would be prettier with Pool Boy’s eyes. It usually takes a few days to be fully objective about that.

Learn the difference between good advice and bad advice. Tactfully find ways to explain to beta readers/critique partners why you took some of their advice but not all of it. Find critique partners who know not to get offended when you take only some of their advice, and don't get offended when they don't take all of yours. Don’t change things in your story that shouldn’t be changed, but do change things that should.

Expect that you will have to make serious edits on a manuscript you thought was perfect. Expect that you will see some great ideas from your beta readers and critique partners that you will ignore, because they would have weakened the story (or perhaps not the story, but the series you plan).

And somehow already magically know all these things, without training, or experience, or knowing whom to ask.

Oh, and learn good (or at least decent) grammar. Nobody’s going to want to work with you for long if you don’t.

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